A school bus in Yellowknife. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
A bus route serving four Yellowknife schools has been shut down indefinitely because the operator cannot find enough drivers.
Parents told Cabin Radio they were informed on December 27 that route 10, serving at least five of the city’s schools, has been cancelled until further notice.
No replacement or alternative was offered, said multiple parents who received an email from bus operator First Transit. After-school places, one remedy when transit plans go awry, are already oversubscribed at many schools.
One resident writing to Cabin Radio said working parents “are given no option but to leave our jobs at 3pm to pick up children.”
While staff availability has caused some Yellowknife school bus routes to flit in and out of operation for a few days at a time – one route disappeared for around a month in November – indefinitely suspending a route because of a lack of drivers is an unusual step.
“It is a bit more serious,” said Mahesh Adhikary, Yellowknife Catholic Schools’ assistant superintendent of business. “We’re going to have to talk to the bus company. They must have some kind of plan in place to hire new drivers.”
On Tuesday, the first day back in class for some students after the holidays, one Yellowknife school district openly wondered whether to set up its own bus network.
“Moving forward, we have to look at all of those possibilities,” said the YK1 district’s superintendent, Jameel Aziz.
“Parents are concerned, as are we,” said Yvonne Careen, superintendent of the French-language Commission scolaire francophone, by email.
Requests to First Transit for comment were not answered. However, a December 30 tweet by the company confirmed the suspension of service on route 10 and blamed a shortage of staff.
Hunt for ‘alternate measures’
A LinkedIn advertisement placed by First Transit promises part-time work worth $27 an hour for anyone prepared to drive a Yellowknife school bus, alongside free training and “nights, weekends and summers off.”
The schedule of a school bus driver does offer plenty of free time – but that may be part of the problem.
Discussing whether YK1 might introduce buses of its own, Aziz said the British Columbia school system in which he previously worked had combined bus driving with other roles, like that of a custodian or maintenance worker, to create full-time positions that were more attractive.
“Right now, with our bus service being contracted, we don’t have a lot of ability to dictate to them what we might be wanting to do,” he said of YK1’s relationship with First Transit.
“We’re putting out advertising, we are trying to help with their recruitment. I would anticipate that many drivers want more hours or can earn more in other places. It’s a system challenge that I’m quite concerned about.”
Adhikary, speaking on Tuesday morning, said Yellowknife Catholic Schools planned to meet with First Transit later that day “to see if we can put some alternate measures in place.”
Asked what those might be, Adhikary said he was interested in exploring whether, for example, students could use their passes to ride on Yellowknife’s city buses – also operated by First – while route 10 is out of service.
“We just came back from the holidays today. Our plan is to talk to First Canada and see how can we resolve it,” he said.
According to First Transit’s website, the cost of a school bus pass in Yellowknife ranges from $225 to $480 annually depending on the child’s school, grade, and home address.
Aziz said some form of compensation would follow for parents who bought a service but are now not receiving it.
“Unfortunately, this is a symptom of the current work system and I would anticipate many of our parents also have staff challenges where they are working as well,” he said.
“I would ask for people’s patience, although I know that’s challenging. We are doing our very best.
“All I can do is apologize on behalf of our school district. We will continue to communicate with parents based on the information we receive. Everyone is really scrambling. If anyone knows anybody capable of driving a bus, I’m sure First Transit would like to hear from them.”